By Donna Gilbert
The pursuit of term limits is sweeping our nation, and municipal
term limits are the most prevalent component of that movement. Beginning as far back as
1851, local limits have spread steadily across the country. They have been passing by an
average of 70 percent of the vote, even higher than national averages for congressional
and state legislative limits.
Our borough assembly would have us believe that it is just a passing
fad - that voters are now changing their minds and don't want limits. But municipal limits
mirror the national term limit movement and demonstrate the concept's longevity. Often
resisted by politicians, when passed they change both the way elected officials work and
who runs for office.
By December of 1995, municipal term limits were in effect in nearly
3,000 cities, including eight of the 10 most populous cities in America, such as New York
City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, and Denver, changing our country's political culture
and paving the way to real reform at the state and national levels. From Florida to
Alaska, from New York to California, over 58 million Americans live with limits of various
sorts. Virtually everywhere voters are given the chance, they pass measures to limit the
terms of city officials.
The question of term limits has revealed the split between
Washington-based groups, such as the National League of Women Voters, and their
counterparts at the grassroots level. While our League has taken a stand against limits,
that is not true everywhere.
NLWV president Becky Cain, speaking before the Senate Judiciary
Committee on congressional term limits, stated: "As an organization dedicated to
protecting and enhancing the role of citizens in our representative democracy, the League
strongly opposes term limits....Term limits would limit the field of potential
candidates for public office."
Yet, only one week before, in discussing the action of the city council
in Florence, Alabama, which voted to end term limits on city board members, the local
president of the League of Women Voters, Susan Zuber, rebuked the change stating,
"I'm worried this may be a step backwards for Florence.... the current
process of limiting terms allows for more participation by rotating."
The most competitive elections tend to be those where no incumbent is
running. Many potential candidates choose not to run for office when faced with running
against a sitting officeholder, because of the tremendous advantages of incumbency.
A study by L. Sandy Maisel attempted to determine the reasons why
potential candidates choose not to run for public office. He found that 60% of those
surveyed thought that the task of unseating an incumbent, rather than running for an open
seat, was too great. In fact, Maisel found it THE ONLY SIGNIFICANT FACTOR INVOLVED in
determining who ran for office.
Some interesting tendencies have been found where there are no
term limits. A 1993 study in California found lower education levels, more male
council members, and much more of a partisan imbalance in those NON-Term limited cities.
The gender imbalance is interesting, considering the National LWV's opposition to
term limits. One could conclude that they are arguing against themselves!
Term limits have been the subject of lawsuits. Even so, city
limitations have withstood judicial scrutiny in almost every challenge
Attorney Duncan Scott is quoted as having said, "We have a handful
of incumbents trying to thwart the will of 72 percent of the voters.... These people
really believe they own the office and will only be dragged from office with their
fingernails clutching their desks." This reminds me of our own assemblymen, such as
Layne St. John, Cole Sonafrank, and Hank Bartos who wanted to remove our limits without
letting the people vote on them!
Time after time, in city after city, voters pass municipal term limits
in high percentages. Local limits transform political culture from one of entrenched
careers to one of citizen representation. Opinion polls consistently show overwhelming
support for term limits and the abundance of term limits at this level proves how deep the
desire to limit terms is in the United States.
Although term limits were not meant to solve all our political
problems, they are a popular reform, based on obtaining equal representation and putting
competitiveness back into elections Over time, more candidates with a wider diversity of
views will seek legislative "open seats" made available by the regular turnover,
reinvigorating political life and restoring legitimacy to our representative system.
That is why we need term limits, and why I urge your YES vote Tuesday.